What Could Have Been: The Doctor Who TV Movie

McGann Doctor Who TV MovieAs we’ve done once before, instead of a season for a show that was canceled, this month we’re going to look at the plans for a series that never actually materialized at all. In this case, we’re looking at the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. The series was a co-production that aired on Fox, and was passed on for really stupid reasons that we’ll not get into here. But, given that it was essentially a pilot movie that was intended to lead into a full continuation of the classic BBC Doctor Who, there were quite a lot of plans as to where the show would’ve gone and what it might have included. How does it stack up to the eventual modern Doctor Who? Let’s find out.

First of all, this is something that went through a ton of iterations before it even came close to what we saw on screen. The main force behind the TV Movie was Philip Segal, who really wanted to stick with the idea of a continuation rather than a full-on reboot, which is what most of the executives would’ve preferred. So at various points, the Doctor was going to be played by an American, or he was the Master’s twin brother, or he was the deposed rightful heir to the throne of Gallifrey, out searching for his long lost father Ulysses while carrying the spirit of his grandfather Borusa in a bucket in the TARDIS… so just remember, whatever you think of the final state of the Doctor Who TV movie, it could’ve been so, so, so much worse. On the other hand, both Eccleston and Capaldi were offered the role of the 8th Doctor, so that’s a fun what-if for you.

The list of possible actors for both the Doctor and the Master are positively insane, from really left-field celebrities like Sting, who’s more of a musician than an actor, to Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, at various stages. One amusing choice was Kyle MacLachlan, who played a character originally introduced as just “The Doctor” in Agents of SHIELD season 2. The Master was at one point to be played by Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown from Back to the Future), and also considered were the likes of Richard Dean Anderson (O’Neill from Stargate SG-1) and Scott Bakula (Captain Archer from Enterprise) and even Jonathan Frakes (Riker from TNG)! While a lot of these choices weren’t terribly likely (Frakes, for example, likely would’ve been busy with TNG films), it’s pretty crazy to imagine how different this all could have been had the casting process been changed ever so slightly. Not to mention the ripple effect some of these choices would’ve had on other productions.

And people were unhappy with the Cybus versions...

And people were unhappy with the Cybus versions…

Unfortunately, it seems like it was pretty clear to everyone involved in the production of the Doctor Who TV movie that it was never going to get a fair shake at a full series, even though the option was left open. And while it was relatively popular in the UK, it didn’t meet Fox’s expectations in the US and thus was left as a one-off (yes, that’s right, Fox even managed to cancel Doctor Who. I’m sure some day they’ll figure out how to get their hands on Star Trek and Star Wars so they can cancel them, too). As such, there aren’t a whole lot of plans for what would’ve come next available; on the other hand, these mountains of reboot scripts that were left behind give us some idea as to where it may have gone, because they probably wouldn’t have thrown all the sketches and redesigns away. So let’s look at those, and then wonder how they’d have jiggered them into continuity (if they worried about that at all).

  • As you already saw, some of the reboot ideas were rather insane. They clearly weren’t afraid to change core concepts behind the Doctor to make him more Americanized, up to and including turning him into an action hero. This extended to his enemies as well. Namely, the Daleks–we hear them killing the Master in the final version of the film, but they’re not shown. In the earlier versions, the Daleks were redesigned entirely, having at one point been reduced to the Master’s minions. We’ll assume that wasn’t the case, and that they went with a simple revamp instead. In this form, the Daleks would’ve looked more like spider-y mecha, heavily armored but still based around a fleshy pile that’s otherwise defenseless. And yet the sketches and artwork of this redesign have the actual Dalek creature exposed. Some test footage of the design was put together at one point, apparently, and aired on British television via the video game show Gamesmaster. In it, we can see (in glorious 144p) a smooth-looking traditional Dalek suit transforming into the spider-like redesign as it approaches the screen. It’s not exactly awful, but it wouldn’t have gone over well and really, the Dalek design is already so iconic. Why change it?
  • But if you think what was happening to the Daleks was bad, don’t even look at the Cybermen. “Cybs,” as they’d been redubbed, were redone from the ground up. They’re now tribe-oriented scavengers, kinda Mad Max-ish, in a way. You know, if the characters in Mad Max had shoved all that tech into their bodies instead.
  • A lot of the specific script ideas are just remakes of classic Who serials, such as a version of “The Sea Devils” set aboard an oil rig in Louisiana, or “The Tomb of the Cybermen” redone with their new changed appearance and involvement from the Master. After a while, the decision shifted from remaking well-known stories like these to some of the lost episodes instead, during a phase when Segal wanted to make regular TV movies rather than a full series.
  • Many characters were folded into new drafts of the script, only to be taken out later, including at one point a new companion called Lizzie, who was an American woman participating in the war effort overseas during World War 2. She also had a bulldog, who would’ve gone on to stay with the Doctor, for some reason. No one tell K-9.
  • While the show might not have been built around the Doctor reclaiming the Gallifreyan throne, it almost certainly would’ve had more of a driving goal than classic Who ever did, or the modern revival until relatively recently. The Doctor would’ve had something he was trying to accomplish, even if it’s as simple as stopping the Master for good, which would be accomplished in the eventual series finale. The people behind the scenes certainly seemed to be heavily focused on the Doctor/Master relationship, retconning all the old enemies into little more than minions of his.

One of the things that’s really unclear, had the show taken off, is how willing an American network would’ve been to embrace the idea of regeneration. Think about how radical the shift between Tennant/Davies era and the Smith/Moffat era was–new sets, new stars, new writers and showrunners. Even the various Star Trek spinoffs had more in common than series 4 and 5 of Doctor Who did. 90’s American network television would’ve felt like this kind of a massive change would be a huge risk, and one that’s not strictly necessary. While most fans are willing to say that the show’s ability to reinvent itself so completely is one of its greatest strengths, there’s no doubt that it definitely does pose a risk, one that the minds behind the 2005 revival were keenly aware of. By introducing the concept in the first season, it actually worked better, letting fans know to expect that this was always a possibility, and will always be one moving forward. Fox absolutely wouldn’t have been willing to take that chance at the end of a first season, and after 5 seasons of McGann (as they originally wanted to sign him for, and which he was reportedly hesitant to do), pulling such a huge shift that late in the game could’ve killed the show. Just look at how the attempts at continuing The X-Files without Mulder went, for example, or how disliked replacing actors in general is looked upon (Ezri Dax from Deep Space 9 is an even better case).

So, personally, I find it unlikely that Doctor Who on American TV, even if it had initially succeeded, would’ve had as long a life as the 2005 series has. 5 seasons of 20-26 episodes per season with McGann would’ve been the most you could reasonably expect; maybe 7 seasons, if it became a cultural force like these other shows AND McGann was willing to stick around that long. So we can pretty much discount the possibility of seeing theoretical 9th, 10th, etc. Doctors on American TVs. It would also have had a pretty conclusive ending that would’ve prevented any later attempts at reviving the continuity, thus necessitating reboots… probably as movies, like every other 80s/90s TV series has been lately.


There we go. While there was a lot of info about the crazy early versions, I was surprised how little there was to go on about what stories might have followed the one we saw on screen. I think that we can mostly chalk this up to the fact that it was a miracle the Doctor Who TV movie got made at all, and everyone (rightly) expected there wouldn’t be a point in planning what comes next. I think it’s pretty easy to see that we really dodged a lot of bullets in the making of it, and while it’s a shame McGann never got more than his two brief on-screen appearances, everyone should be thankful it turned out the way it did. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter @RetroPhaseShift. Coming soon, a Doctor Who series 9 retrospective!

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  1. I do agree — even though it sucks for Paul, it’s probably good for us that things worked out the way they did, so we can get the modern version of BBC Who while the 8th Doctor goes on in other formats.

    I liked his second onscreen appearance a lot. I haven’t checked out his audio projects yet, but I read his continuing adventures in Titan Comics, which are great. http://amzn.to/1lVD0Bu

    • “I’m a Doctor, but probably not the one you expected.”

      LOVE that line. I think every Doctor Who fan went berserk the second he said that.